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Geoff Johnson: We need to prepare kids to become independent learners

Online learners will need to be ­intrinsically motivated with equal parts ­willpower, personal initiative and ­perseverance, along with the skills needed to adapt to the new situation, Geoff Johnson says
A piece that’s missing: ­preparing kids to become independent learners. VIA PIXABAY

With the immediate future of the daily routine of in-person teaching and learning uncertain these days, and with some schools already becoming “functionally closed” because of a COVID-19 case count or staff shortage, the notion of online classes is back on the table.

But there is a piece missing from the discussion about the technicalities of online teaching and learning: How do we assist learners to move from classroom structures that involve external regulation of class time, work assignments and teacher-student interaction to a model of internal regulation for and by the student who is trying to work through online instructional programming at home?

That’s not an easy overnight transition and, as prolific education writer Alfie Cohen points out, for learners to become essentially self-directed, they must ­identify, rehearse and apply learning strategies, structure their own learning, and critically reflect upon their own learning processes in order to use their acquired skills, inside and outside the classroom.

And that is the piece that’s missing right now — preparing the kids to become ­independent learners.

The term “self-regulated learning” (SRL) has been used interchangeably with ­“self-directed learning” (SDL), although when, of necessity, online learning becomes more mainstream, it will be the skills and habits of self-directed learning that become critically important, and self-regulation will need to be a part of that.

Self-directed learning is defined by two learner characteristics. First, it is a ­process of learning in which the individual ­establishes basic control over their own learning, and second, self-directed learners have developed learning efficiency and are self-motivated to work through a problem.

It’s when we look at the necessity for motivation for the self-directed online learner that things get a bit muddy.

There’s intrinsic motivation — doing something for its own sake, such as running just because it feels good, and extrinsic motivation, when the runner is running in order to gain external approval, maybe in the form of praise or even a prize.

As an anthology of studies has shown, the more you reward kids externally for doing something, the more they’re apt to lose interest in whatever they had to do just to get the reward.

Online learners will need to be ­intrinsically motivated with equal parts ­willpower, personal initiative and ­perseverance, along with the skills needed to adapt to the new situation.

Obviously in the case of a possible sudden shift to online learning should COVID surge in schools, it is a mistake to assume that kids accustomed to traditional or even ­non-traditional classroom settings will be able to move smoothly into what online courses will require of them psychologically and emotionally, beyond just the course material.

Kids will need to have learned how to take charge of their own learning.

The public school system has not had to prepare students to become ­independent learners before and, should online or even “hybrid” learning become a ­necessity from time to time until COVID runs its course, preparing kids to learn in new ­self-directed ways should become a part of the ­curriculum.

So, what to do to prepare kids who are still in class but may, inevitably, find ­themselves alone at home sitting in front of a screen, trying to focus on what to do.

Making some school-day organizational changes might be a place to start, and that will require not only student preparation but teacher and especially parent preparation as plans to develop learner independence are enacted.

Helping learners to practise making a daily study plan and personal schedule to help with time-management skills may involve, perhaps for a day every other week, moving away from bell schedules that signal a switch from math to science — ready or not.

If learners are to gain some sense of control over their own learning situations, they’ll need to learn how to organize their time without external signals.

A radical idea? Not really, because in 2022, we are dealing with what may be a long-term necessity to prepare for individual learning once the structure of the school-day safety net has been pulled out from under them for periods of time.

And in terms of kids becoming more self-directed and self-regulated as learners, some good may come from all this after all.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.